“Lines of communication”

Piazza lets a San Jose State math professor write elegant equations—and track student participation

Professor Slobodan Simic
What makes Piazza different from other forums?
Well, one thing I really like about it from a math perspective is that it supports LaTeX. It’s hard to type a formula or equation using regular characters; there’s no integral sign on the keyboard. That’s why every math paper is now written in LaTeX. Having a collaborative tool like Piazza that supports LaTeX is wonderful. It’s easy to learn, doesn't require much effort from students, and makes everything much more readable. When you try to type a formula into an email, it can be confusing. But with Piazza, I really understand what my students are asking.
Anything else you’ve found helpful for math, specifically?
I like that it’s collaborative, Wikipedia-style. Students can answer each other’s questions, and everything is nicely grouped based on tags for easy searching. No one has to wait for my next office hours to get hints or answers, and I don’t have to deal with a deluge of emails or respond to the same question a dozen times.
Do you ever reward students for their contributions?
Yes. Piazza makes that easy to do. Especially in my large classes, I encourage students to answer questions and give those who do points that can eventually bump them up to a higher grade. Of course, the forum also supports anonymous postings (though you can disable that feature). But last semester, in a 430-student class, that was only abused once.
Anything else you’d tell other math professors about Piazza?
In mathematics, the high cost of textbooks is a problem that a lot of professors are concerned about. This fall, I’m going to post all my lecture notes on Piazza.
I’m guessing you’re pretty numbers-driven. Have you seen any difference in the success of your classes since you started using Piazza?
It’s hard to compare, because I teach different classes each semester. But actually, I taught Calculus One a couple years ago at Berkeley without Piazza, and then Calculus Two the following semester with it. In the Calculus One class, I felt like my students were paying all this money, but I was teaching 400 of them and had no way to know how they were doing or even what their names were. There was just no good way to communicate with them. The system that Cal has doesn’t seem to be very good. So the following semester, with Piazza, things were—at least from my perspective—better. Those who were driven enough to utilize Piazza, I think they did better. My experience of the class was that they did better.
Do you only use Piazza for big lecture classes?
Last semester I taught a research project and we used Piazza and it was wonderful. The students met twice weekly and discussed things in person all the time, but we’d still have extremely long threads going on Piazza. Even in a five or six-person class, it was great.
Do the students like it?
Oh yes. Nowadays, colleagues tell me that their students always ask, ‘Are we going to use Piazza?’ It’s sort of an expected thing now.